I believe there are three kinds of people: those who love The Big Lebowski, those who hate The Big Lebowski, and those who have not seen The Big Lebowski. Those of you in the second category will, I hope, be able to approach this week’s post with an open mind. If not, maybe this week’s post is not for you. Go look at some cat pictures or something. If you haven’t seen it, I hope what follows piques your interest.
Those of us who fall into the third category seem to appreciate The Big Lebowski for the very qualities that repel the haters. We revel in the quirky dialogue, the bizarre side characters, the texture of the world of the film. There’s something indefinable, almost magic about it. Its story only seems to meander aimlessly; in reality, it fits together like a Swiss watch, albeit one of very unusual construction. It’s a true masterpiece of cinema, and one of my personal favorites.*
Story Structure Break Down
Act One: The Set-Up
The Hook: As a tumbleweed rolls through city streets, the Cowboy sets the scene in voice-over – Los Angeles at the time of the First Gulf War – and introduces us to our hero, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, “quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County,” a middle-aged hippie on a late night grocery run [apparently he was out of half & half]. He checks out and heads home, where —
Inciting Incident (Ii) – He’s assaulted by two thugs under the employ of pornographer Jackie Treehorn. One of them urinates on the living room rug. When he learns they’re here to collect on a debt owed by “your wife … Bunny,” the Dude realizes they have the wrong guy — he isn’t married! There’s another Jeff Lebowski in L.A., a millionaire, and it’s him they’re after. When they realize their mistake, the thugs blame the Dude. “Thanks a lot, asshole!”
The Dude talks with Walter and Donny, his bowling teammates. Walter convinces him to seek restitution from the other Jeffrey Lebowski, who angrily dismisses him as a bum “looking for a hand-out.” The Dude tells Lebowski’s assistant Brandt, “the old man told me to take any rug in the house.” On the way out, he meets Lebowski’s young wife, Bunny, and her nihilist friend Uli.
B-Story Introduced: the bowling tournament. Walter gets violent when he believes their opponents are cheating. Brandt calls the Dude and asks for help.
Plot Point I (PPI) — The Dude learns that Bunny has been kidnapped. Lebowski shows him the ransom note and asks him to act as courier for the exchange.
Act Two: Conflict and Complications
The Dude believes the kidnapping is a hoax. After trading barbs with his team’s opponent in the upcoming semi-finals, Jesus [not pronounced “Hay-seuss”] Quintana, the Dude goes home, where he’s attacked by a red-haired woman and two goons. He falls into a bizarre dream, and wakes to find his new rug stolen and his beeper going off — Lebowski has received further instructions from the kidnappers.
Now convinced that Bunny has been kidnapped, the Dude picks up Walter and they head for the rendezvous. Walter throws a satchel of dirty underwear off the designated bridge, planning to keep the ransom money and free Bunny by other means [He brought an Uzi. Things go wrong in spectacular fashion].
The Dude’s car is stolen from the bowling alley parking lot, Lebowski’s briefcase of cash still inside. The Dude meets Lebowski’s eccentric artist daughter Maude [the redhead from earlier], who reveals Bunny’s porn star past and that Lebowski embezzled the ransom money from the family’s charitable foundation. She offers to pay the Dude to recover the money. On leaving her studio, the Dude realizes he’s being followed by a blue Volkswagen. He’s ambushed at home by an irate Lebowski, who accuses him of stealing the money. When the Dude explains that Bunny kidnapped herself, Brandt hands him an envelope containing what seems to be Bunny’s toe.
The LAPD recover the Dude’s car. Uli and two other German nihilists break into the apartment and demand the ransom money, revealing themselves as the kidnappers and threatening castration. The Dude searches the car, but Lebowski’s briefcase has vanished.
Mid-Point (MP) — Distraught, the Dude rejects Walter’s sympathy. He talks with the Cowboy, then receives a call from Maude, asking him to come see her.**
AIIb: Where’s the Money, Lebowski?
Maude reveals that the nihilists are all friends of Bunny’s, making it less likely that she has actually been kidnapped. The Dude is again tailed by the Volkswagen. He finds a wad of paper stuffed between the car seats — the homework of a kid named Larry Sellers.
Walter and the Dude confront Larry about the missing briefcase. When he dummies up, Walter attacks the new sports car he assumes Larry bought with the stolen money. This turns out to be another mistake; the real owner retaliates by smashing the Dude’s windshield.
Jackie Treehorn’s men return and bring the Dude to their boss’s estate. Treehorn drugs the Dude, who hallucinates wildly [Busby Berkeley does Wagner in a bowling alley] but manages to escape. He is picked up and beaten by Malibu police officers. The Dude returns home to find his apartment ransacked and Maude waiting for him. “Jeffrey,” she says. “Love me.”
Plot Point II (PPII) – Post-coitus, Maude explains that a) she was using the Dude as a sperm donor, and b) her father, the so-called millionaire, has no money of his own. The Dude realizes that the briefcase for which Walter threw out a “ringer” was, in fact, a ringer itself.
Act Three: Resolution
The driver of the blue Volkswagen is revealed to be a private detective, looking for Bunny [real name: Fawn Knutson] on behalf of her parents. Bunny returns from an impromptu trip to Palm Springs. The Dude and Walter confront Lebowski, who claims that he gave them the money and they stole it. “You have your story; I have mine.” The nihilists order pancakes in a restaurant; the girl joining them has a bandaged foot.
Climactic Moment (CM) — The Dude, Walter and Donny exit the bowling alley, only to find the Dude’s car in flames and the nihilists waiting. Violence ensues. Walter single-handedly takes the nihilists down. Donny suffers a heart attack and dies.
Walter and the Dude scatter Donny’s ashes [it goes horribly wrong, of course], and go back to the bowling alley for the semi-finals. The Cowboy gives his last thoughts and we fade out.
What Kind of Movie Is It?
If I had unlimited time for the writing, and you unlimited energy for the reading, we could explore the story structure of The Big Lebowski in greater detail. Much could be said about the film’s relationship with the Hero’s Journey paradigm, as first explained by Joseph Campbell and later expounded upon by Chris Vogler [Walter as the Mentor figure, anyone?]. But time grows short, and this essay is already approaching the length of its predecessors before we’ve talked theory at all. So let’s step away from the nuts and bolts of the narrative, and look at the story’s context.
If you’ve read the preceding outline, you’ve probably realized that this is a complicated film, with, as the Dude says, a “lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.” There’s a mystery at its core — the kidnapping and ransom — that becomes hopelessly muddled, before resolving in such a way that it undermines itself. There was no kidnapping; there was no money. And in the end, the mystery’s solution makes no difference at all. Lebowski gets away with his embezzlement; the Dude goes back to his everyday life of bowling and smoking Thai sticks. He never receives the money Lebowski promises him; it’s not likely that Maude ever paid him for solving the case, either. It’s a nihilistic denouement, in which one is left to wonder if there was any point in our protagonist’s efforts at all.
The Coen Brothers have said that they wanted the film to be “a [Raymond] Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” Much has been made of the plot parallels between Lebowski and Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep; however, Lebowski shares stronger thematic ties with Chandler’s later novel The Long Goodbye. While both novels feature private eye Philip Marlowe as protagonist, the second of these [Chandler’s final novel] finds him world-weary, out of step with the consumerist culture of mid-Fifties Los Angeles, still clinging to his same morality in a world where everyone else seems to have traded principles for cash. And it’s the connection to Goodbye that I want to explore here.
Like Marlowe, the Dude is adrift in the L.A of his times. A Sixties throwback, the Dude seems not to understand much of the world around him. We see this most clearly at his first meeting with Lebowski, where most of the conversation revolves around a) the Dude’s rejection of “Mr. Lebowski” as a name, and b) his lack of a job, a decent wardrobe, or even an understanding of what day of the week it is. He has separated himself from mainstream American life. Much of the Dude’s dialogue seems to be regurgitated bits he’s picked up elsewhere, mirroring the world back on itself, but without its original context to give it meaning — “This aggression will not stand,” from George Bush’s televised speech on the situation in Kuwait; “in the parlance of our times,” said to Lebowski but taken from an earlier conversation with Maude. All of this serves to make the Dude an outsider whose status gives him the correct vantage point from which to assess the situation. Prrhaps this is the reason why the Cowboy calls him “the man for his time and place.”
Interestingly, while Marlowe’s discovery at the end of Goodbye that all has been for naught leaves him bitter and succumbing to nihilism, the Dude seems to regain his optimism by the movie’s end. Perhaps the victory lay not in seeing Lebowski punished for his crime, but in the act of speaking truth to power. I wonder, too, if the final confrontation with the nihilists — in which the men who “believe in not’ing” complain bitterly about not having got the ransom money despite their girlfriend sacrificing a toe [“It’s not fair,” one of them whines] — doesn’t restore some of his optimism. When even the people touting their lack of moral compass demonstrate that they do, in fact, follow a true north, no matter how dubious, perhaps the world isn’t that bad. At least there’s something to believe in.***
To get back to the concept of genre — for that is, ultimately, what we’ve been discussing here, isn’t it? — The Big Lebowski succeeds beautifully as a Chandler-esque mystery. It’s also funny as all hell.
One might classify The Big Lebowski as a sort of neo-screwball comedy. The classic screwball films shared several key characteristics — fast-paced, quippy dialogue; visual gags and slapstick, and “improbable events, mistaken identities, and ominously misleading circumstantial evidence quickly compounded upon each other, albeit by seemingly logical progression, until a frantic conclusion.” Lebowski has these in spades.
Verbal quips zip by at a rapid pace, liberally seasoned with profanity, building on each other in some of the most ridiculous conversations in cinema. Consider this scene, in which the Dude’s teammates commiserate with him about his ruined rug. One of the first things that jumps out at the viewer is the use of repetition. Otherwise mundane phrases — “the Chinaman is not the issue,” “You’re out of your element,” “tied the room together” become funny as they start to pile up as the scene [and indeed, the movie] progresses.
This conversation also highlights another technique found throughout the film, namely, the use of hopelessly fragmented, incoherent sentences as a character finds himself unable to untangle his own thoughts before they spill out if his mouth [“Across this line, you do not — also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.”]. My personal favorite example of this technique is found later, when Lebowski accuses the Dude of stealing the ransom money. Dude’s response:
I dropped off the money exactly as per — look, man, I’ve got certain information, all right, certain things have come to light, and — you know, has it ever occurred to you that instead of, uh, you know, running around, uh, uh, blaming me, you know, given the nature of all this new shit, you know, this could be, uh, uh, uh, a lot more uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, complex — I mean it’s not just — it might not be just such a simple, uh — you know?
Lebowski is also a brilliant exercise in the Theory of Incongruity. This principle says we laugh because we are set up to expect one thing, but get something else. It’s Walter interrupting his own tirade against unchecked aggression to correct the Dude for being inadequately PC. It’s pretty much every interjection poor clueless Donny makes. And it’s the Dude in our Inciting Incident scene (Ii). Jackie Treehorn’s thug shoves his head repeatedly into the toilet, screaming, “Where’s the money, Lebowski? Where’s the fucking money, shithead?” The Dude doesn’t say “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” “What money?” or even, “Please stop.” Instead, he takes in a quick gasp of air and says:
This pattern of set-up and reversal plays into the visual and sound gags as well. The Dude props a chair against the front door to keep intruders out; seconds later, we realize that the door opens outward, causing the chair to simply fall outward when intruders do arrive. When a tearful Lebowski shows the Dude the ransom note, operatic music swells. As film audiences, we’ve grown accustomed to such scenes. We assume the music is part of the soundtrack that we the audience hears, meant to heighten the drama of the situation. Then Brandt ushers the Dude into the hall, closing the doors to the drawing room behind them, and we realize something else is afoot. The music continues to play, muffled, from behind the closed doors. It’s not the soundtrack at all, but the music which Lebowski has specifically put on for his meeting with the Dude.
The plot of Lebowski also seems to fit the screwball bill — mistaken identities, improbable occurrences, circumstantial evidence that seem to point to Bunny being kidnapped — except in one particular. The chief focus of a screwball comedy is on a love story, either in the form of a scheming woman convincing a man to marry her or a marriage which falls apart, only to ultimately come back together. The lack of this central element might seem to disqualify The Big Lebowski from the genre. However.
Joel Coen has described the dynamic between the Dude and Walter as “a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage.” Viewed in that light, the story of Lebowski is, in many ways, the screwball story of a relationship which disintegrates, only to come back at the very end. As things get progressively more convoluted for the Dude [often due to Walter’s interference], their relationship sours. Near the end, the Dude refuses to let Walter help anymore. He’s screwed up too much. Yet ultimately, the Dude realizes he has nobody to turn to but Walter, and they reconcile.
Nihilistic neo-noir thriller, screwball comedy, call it what you will — The Big Lebowski remains difficult to classify. Yet its fascinating characters, unexpectedly convoluted storyline, and snappy dialogue have captured the collective imagination of a generation, paving the way for further cult successes and further cementing the Coen Brothers’ place in the pantheon of modern filmmakers. Love it or hate it, you can’t help but admire its meticulous craftsmanship.
Expect to see another update later this week, as we delve into the similarly meticulous craftsmanship of a film acknowledged even more widely as a classic, but probably seen by few people not enrolled in an Intro to Film class: Orson Welles’s groundbreaking masterwork, Citizen Kane. Til then,
The Dude Abides.
*If this post waxes over-long, it’s because I find it nearly impossible to write about the movie objectively. It’s a film which sits very close to my heart. I actually took my now-wife to see it at a second-run theater for our first date.
**It was surprisingly challenging to pick out the mid-point scene of this movie. Oftentimes the mid-point is viewed as the moment when the two sides first size each other up. This might lead one to believe that the previous scene with the nihilists is the mid-point. I’ve seen other analyses which give the honor to the toe scene, which is frankly far too early in the film. At one point, I thought it might be the scene which follows this one, the second meeting with Maude. But notice two things at work here: first, this scene finds the Dude at his lowest point, with no sense of direction, regretting that he ever got himself involved in the first place — “I could be sitting here with just pee stains on my rug!” Circumstances are conspiring to “force the hero to consider throwing in the towel.” Secondly, Maude’s phone call kicks off a completely new focus for the second half of Act II, bisecting the investigation neatly.
***Given how much of the film centers around deceptive appearances — Lebowski’s financial status, the Germans’ faux nihilism, the kidnapping itself — the Dude’s inner journey seems almost to be a movement toward authentic, Camus-style nihilism, a recognition of the absurd meaninglessness of all that has befallen him. At the film’s conclusion, the Dude seems to have embraced belief in life’s lack of purpose or meaning [as opposed to the loss of belief, the unbelief of a broken-hearted Philip Marlowe]. From this angle, Walter becomes the perfect foil — a devout shomer shabbos, constantly obsessing on “the rules” and being right, yet whose instincts and advice always make things worse.